An interesting, if strange, question posed by the BBC’s Paul Mason about whether the Occupy movement signals the death of contemporary art. Given that his piece (and presumably also the film on which it is based) proceeds to look at the central role played by contemporary artists in Occupy, the obvious answer would seem to be, ‘No’. Even if one interprets the question to mean the contemporary art market, the piece seems to demonstrate that a few of the Occupy-related artists are happily (if, potentially problematically) producing work both for Occupy and for the market. The question appears even stranger given the wider role that contemporary artists (and writers, and others) have played in protest movements throughout the world over the past year or so, and even more so historically.
That said, this is clearly a moment when the relationship between the arts and the markets (not just the art market) is subject to considerable critical scrutiny. This is partly because the mainstream (i.e. highly-moneyed) contemporary art market seems to be carrying on pretty much regardless of the role artists are playing in representing and mediating protest – indeed the mainstream market is actively avoiding and/or censoring them.
Challenges to this situation did not start with Occupy, however. One of the first events I attended as ‘spokesperson’ for goldin+senneby, at the TINA show at The Drawing Room in 2008, involved a group of critically engaged and/or (basically) Marxist artists presenting their work to room full of an earlier generation of YBAs (i.e. the wealthy and successful ones) and what appeared to be mainly bankers and collectors. And this to the distant sound of banks crashing in the background. It was rather satisfying company in which to be slagging off capitalism as I recall….
Perhaps a better way to understand what Occupy and the others represent, therefore, is as revealing a further massive polarization of arts markets (plurals all round) with the gilded (and inoffensive or censored) few continuing to be bought for squillions by galleries and collectors in London, New York, Moscow, the UAE and, increasingly, Beijing (and a few others) whilst ignoring the lots of interesting stuff happening on the street and/or at ‘alternative’ venues.
This is nothing new, of course, but raises the question of what contemporary ‘art’ is for. An impossible and much rehearsed question, but one asked with great power by critical artists whether or not they are part of the protest movements. When we are able to see what art can do and how relevant it can be, does all that overpriced decorative stuff – however crafty and pretty it may be – really count as art at all any more?
So, no, Occupy is not killing contemporary art, but, by exposing what has become a particularly vapid ‘gallery modernism’ for what it is (a creature of the markets and not much else), it might be knocking a few holes in what one dominant version of ‘contemporary art’ had become.